I’ll never forget when we played Brazil in the opening game of the 1998 World Cup. I knew I was the penalty taker so, like most athletes, you visualise and think about what you would do in certain positions and I picked my spot the night before. My secret was never to change my mind and thankfully for me it hit the back of the net. It was a special feeling to equalise against the mighty Brazil and get our team back into the game in front of all our fans. Wonderful memories.
I watched Scotland’s Euro 2020 play-off against Serbia on Thursday at home and I’ve never been so nervous. It was worse watching the shootout than when I used to take penalties myself. There was nothing I could do about it so I was just hoping that no one would miss because it’s always so painful for the person who does.
All of the penalty takers deserve a huge amount of credit because they were under enormous pressure. Like against Israel in the semi-final, every single one of them was perfect and their efforts were followed by a world-class save from the David Marshall. He was quite right not to celebrate immediately because how many times have we seen VAR spoil it? It was interesting to see that was his first thought – normally your first thought is celebration and going crazy, but with these new rules and VAR you never know.
Steve Clarke has made Scotland very organised and hard to beat – everyone works non-stop and they are very disciplined with a massive work ethic. The performance against Serbia was the best we’ve seen so far and that is the most pleasing thing for him: that in the biggest game, they rose to the occasion. The confidence has been growing thanks to the unbeaten run and that showed on Thursday. It was a very confident performance – I thought they would be edgy to start with and defensive but it was the exact opposite. Steve had obviously analysed them and saw that Aleksandar Mitrovic has no pace so that means you can push up the pitch and put pressure on their back four, who were pretty average. They couldn’t get any solid positions in the first half and it was like we were the home team, which is a huge compliment to the management team and the players.
In 1998, we took being at major tournaments for granted. Who would ever have believed that it would take 22 years for us to be back? But now we are. It’s disappointing that it has taken so long but let’s focus on the positive now and we have something to look forward to with the big game against England.
My last game for Scotland was at Wembley in the play-off for Euro 2000 when we won 1-0 after losing the first leg 2-0 at Hampden and I also played against them there at Euro 96, so I know all about matches against the Auld Enemy. It’s a game where we have nothing to fear – the reality is that you have to go into these matches believing that you can get a result and anything is possible.
That’s got to be the mindset of the coaches and the players. You don’t want to think, ‘oh, England have got this player or that player’. They’re just football players. In a one-off game, we’re more than capable of getting a result. We’ve also got two games at Hampden Park and if we play like we did against Serbia then we have a chance against anybody.
In 1998, we had a great team spirit and it was a festival atmosphere for the whole tournament. I remember driving to the stadiums in the team bus and the Tartan Army were everywhere with the colours and the bagpipes. That’s what major tournaments are all about – the celebration of different nationalities coming together and having a party.
Our supporters have been through so much over the years and it’s been a very tough year here, like it has all over the world with Covid-19. This will brighten up the spirits of the country and hopefully everyone will be planning their trips down to Wembley – with or without a ticket. They’ll be saving their money now.